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Breaking the Child

A few months ago my daughters and I went horseback riding for the first time. The instructor emphasized the importance of becoming the master of our horses. If we told our horse to do something, we had to MAKE them do it. Otherwise, the horse would become our master.

One of my daughters was a natural and had no problem taking control of the horse. But for me and my other girl, this was quite a struggle.

This experience made me reflect on my years in education and the number of times I've heard adults (teachers and parents) talk about the best way to control a child or a classroom. These conversations typically entail some form of breaking a child, like a horse. Teachers and parents constantly lament over some child's willfulness. Certainly teachers need to be in charge of the classroom, but I wonder: How far would you go to gain control of a child?

I don't know that I have the answer to this question, and certainly this is a personal journey for all of us. Most children are quite compliant and teacher-pleasing. Others can be coerced with just a little push. But, what about those who are exceptionally defiant? Those who fight back? How far should we push for compliance?

Perhaps I'm not the best person to ask. My students often tell me I'm too nice. Am I? I work very hard to create a classroom environment of acceptance. I want my students to feel comfortable enough to make mistakes and ask questions. I know that my relaxed atmosphere makes some teachers feel uncomfortable. My students sit on top of desks or on the floor - some even sit under tables. They listen to music while they work. They push desks together and pull them apart, as they see fit. I've even had kids who walk around with a clipboard and roam the room as they work. I respect other teachers who need more order, but this works for me and it works for my kids. I tell my students, "You can hang from the ceiling, as long as you're working and not distracting others." I prefer to think of this as good practice (for me) - a methodical and purposeful choice to getting my students to perform; this is not the same as being a push-over.

The downside of this, naturally, comes from my students mistaking this for weakness. I rarely send students to the office, mostly because I believe the best place to learn appropriate classroom behavior - is - in the classroom. This throws them off, though, because they are conditioned to an opposite response for misbehavior. They are looking for us to get angry, to yell, to threaten, to call their parents, to send them to the office....and some will push hard until they get it. How do we teach them self-discipline when we are offering a system of teacher-enforcement and punishment?

During our riding lesson, the instructor introduced us to each horse individually. Each day we rode, we took the time to get to know them. We brushed the horses, and talked with them, and even cleaned their shoes, because, as we learned, a horse will yield to us if they are comfortable, if they know us and trust us, if we show them kindness.

Our instructor showed us each horse's sensitive spots and told us to never touch them. These were the results of mistrust - of some child-rider or previous owner abusing them. Once, I forgot and brushed over the horse's sensitive area, to which he responded by kicking. He was nervous around me the rest of the day, and getting him to yield was far more difficult.

This made me think: What are our students' sensitive spots? How did we create them? How often do we touch on those?

I'm not asking how to break the child. I'm asking, should we?


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